Do You Know the True Costs of the Military?

Note that many of the original citation links have since been removed from government websites (March 2020)

In Washington D.C., politicians are overwhelmed by a looming debt ceiling and can’t decide on an avenue for addressing the budget crisis. Republicans want to see spending cuts from social services while Democrats are looking to raise taxes.

But neither wants to admit that Defense spending over the last ten years alone accounts for much of the problem. Struggling to devise a plan to cut $4 trillion from the budget over the next decade, both parties have agreed to ignore a $14 trillion dollar elephant known as the defense budget over that same timeframe (assuming the 2011 budget is unchanged).

Cutting Medicare, Social Security, or other services is put forward as only option, while serious consideration of defense spending—a primary contributor to the current budget crisis and our struggling economy—is absent from the debate.

While we’ve posted a full run-down of the figures below, the short version is this: The 2011 Proposed Budget includes $1.4 trillion in military spending. As we near the ten year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan this October, hypothetically apply the 2011 military spending total to the last ten years: it amounts to $14 trillion dollars in military expenses. The federal debt as of July 2011 is, interestingly enough, practically identical: just over $14 trillion dollars.

These accurate figures are not easy to find. The White House Office of Management and Budget provides a total of $549 billion for its 2011 Defense budget request.

However, that number only includes the proposed discretionary spending budget for programs listed under the Department of Defense, while excluding military Mandatory Spending Programs (Veterans Affairs, military retirement programs, military sales, further DoD budgets), money spent retraining unqualified veterans, paying employers to hire veterans, money spent compensating service members injured by other defense programs, the cost of providing tax exemptions for service members, and numerous other services.

In total, the costs of operating a military like ours and handling the physical and emotional toll on veterans of multiple foreign wars, including rehabilitation, is nearly three times ($1,401 billion) the publicized figure of $549 billion!

Of a federal budget just over $3.8 trillion, $1.4 trillion per year is dedicated to a military complex about which little is heard in the suggestions for reducing federal spending.

We aren’t suggesting cutting the budget for Veterans Affairs or compensating federal employees injured by “Atomic Energy Defense” (as it is listed) programs – instead we suggest that by refusing to launch, support, or fund foreign wars, the expenses of each of these programs drops.

When reliance on the military is reduced, each of the support programs that together make up the largest part of the true defense budget also becomes less costly.

Please take a look at what the real cost of our military is, and provide your in Washington with a simple, popular suggestion for fixing the budget crisis. End the wars! You may want to remind them that they may even get re-elected, since polls show a majority of Americans oppose both the wars in Iraq (here) and Afghanistan (here).

A Look at the Actual Defense Budget:

*All values obtained from the Fiscal Year 2011 Proposed Discretionary Budget (available here), and the 2011 Federal Outlays by program, agency and function (available here), unless otherwise noted.

Military Discretionary Spending Programs account for 774,640,590,000 (over 774 billion) total per year.

They consist of:

            Department of Defense: 549.1 billion (the Defense Budget provided by the White House)

            National Nuclear Security Administration (absent disposal/nonproliferation): 8.5 billion

            Ongoing “Contingency Operations”:

                        Iraq: 44 billion

                        Afghanistan: 110 billion

                        “Other”: 6 billion

            Department of Veterans Affairs: 57 billion

            Defense Environmental Cleanup: 7 million

            Nuclear Weapons Activities: 7 million

            International Security Assistance: 7 million

            Numerous Coast Guard Expenses: 9 million

            Foreign Military Financing: 5 million

            Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation: 2 million

            Other Defense Activities: 2 million

            Naval Reactors: 1 million

            International Military Training: 105,000 dollars

            Other Veterans Benefits: 438,000 dollars

            Iraq Relief and Reconstruction: 47,000 dollars

Military Mandatory Spending Programs account for 204,141,508,000 (over 204 billion) total per year.

They consist of:

            Department of Defense: 7 million

            Department of Defense Medicare Eligible Retiree Health Care Fund: 9 billion

            Department of Veterans Affairs: 85 million

            Department of Education SMART program: 1 million

            Other Civil Defense Programs (military retirement): 117 billion

            Other Veterans Compensation: 78 billion

            CIA retirement: 291,000 dollars

            Coast Guard Retired Pay: 1.191 million

            Coast Guard Other: 110,000 dollars

            Military Sales Program: 26.907 million

            Other Military Retirement and Education: 20 million

            Special Benefits for World War II Veterans: 9,000 dollars


Hidden Military Expenses account for at least 423,439,825,362 (over 423 billion as quantified so far) per year.

They consist of:

            Amount Spent on Incarcerated Veterans: 3.2 billion[i]

Department of Labor: Veterans Employment and Training Service: 262 million

Atomic Energy Defense Occupational Illness Fund: 1 million

Federally Authorized unemployment to recently discharged veterans: 5.3 billion[ii]

College Credits Granted for Military Experience (primarily boot camp and other training): 723 million[iii]

Interest Paid on Loans/Bonds/Debt: $413,954,825,362.17 (over 413 billion) in 2010[iv]

These are costs that would never have statistically accrued if the budget was reduced by the cost of military expenditures (978 billion without considering hidden costs) which make up 26% percent of the annual budget.[v] That the full national debt is barely more than ten years of military expenses is evidence of this.

Yellow Ribbon Program[vi]: Tuition Waived by Colleges in Order to Participate: Unknown

Example: Georgetown College in Kentucky requested authorization to waive over $950,000 in tuition[vii] for veterans last year to receive up to an equal amount in federal funding. Over 11,100 schools have joined the Yellow Ribbon Program, with many waiving as much as half of veteran’s tuition to receive the other half in federal funding. The VA does not release numbers on how many students actually received Yellow Ribbon funding or its cost. Amount therefore not included in calculations.

Waived State Taxes: Unknown

                        Many states exempt military income entirely from state taxes

Waived Vehicle Registration: Unknown

                        Multiple states exempt military personnel from paying for vehicle registration

            Exempt from State and Federal Taxes: Unknown

                        Includes pay while deployed

                        Includes pay for housing, whether in the United States or elsewhere

                        Includes pay for food, whether in the United States or elsewhere

                        Includes re-enlistment bonuses while deployed

Work Opportunity Tax Credit: Unknown

Each employer who hires an Iraq or Afghanistan Veteran is entitled to a $2,400 tax credit per year. Figures for how much the federal government pays to employers for this program could not be found.

Veterans Preference for Federal Jobs: Unknown

Point system which causes veterans to be hired who score lower than non-veterans


[i] Based on 2004 estimate of the number of veterans in prison ( and the average state and federal costs per inmate (

[ii] All honorably discharged military members qualify for unemployment, even if eligible for re-enlistment. Unemployment Eligibility for the approximately 180,000 discharged yearly last 99 weeks under federal unemployment extensions and average payments are $295 weekly, totaling approximately 5,256,900,000 in authorized unemployment payments to recently discharged veterans per year.

[iii] SMART/AARTS Credits as losses to College Programs[iii]

-57% of discharged members attempt to convert credit towards a degree
-47% of those succeed, with 18 credits being the average transferred credit

-48,222 members, approximated based on number of discharged veterans per year and rate of credit transfer above, successfully convert military experience to college credit per year

-867,996 credits (based on 18 average) granted towards a college degree by the military each year

-Average cost per credit is approximated using 25,000 as the cost per year of attending college full time, and 30 credits as the yearly course load. All estimates are intended as conservative devaluations. The total cost for 867,996 credits granted is $723,330,000 per year.